Why Northern Europe is more egalitarian than Southern Europe
Cultures fall on a spectrum between egalitarian and hierarchical leadership styles. INSEAD professor Erin Meyer explains below why Northern Europe tends to be more egalitarian than Southern Europe.
Take a good look at the Leading scale and see if you can identify the location of "European culture." As your eye scans from Denmark and Sweden on the extreme left of the scale all the way down to Italy and Spain in the middle-right, you'll realize that what it means to be "culturally European" on this scale is not very evident. Although Europe is a small geographical area, it embraces large differences in opinion about what it means to be a good boss.
These variations within Europe have been examined by a number of different researchers. For example, in the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s, my colleague Professor Andre´ Laurent polled hundreds of European managers about a number of leadership issues. One of the questions he asked was, "Is it important for a manager to have at hand precise answers to most of the questions subordinates may raise about their work?"
Take a look (Figure 4.2) at the percentages of respondents from each country who responded "yes" to this question:
As you can see, the answers varied dramatically from one nationality to the next. While 55 percent of Italians polled claimed that it is important for the boss to have most of the answers, only 7 percent of Swedes thought the same way. In recent follow-up interviews, Swedish managers explained that a conscious approach to leadership underlies this attitude. One commented, "Even if I know the answer, I probably won't give it to my staff . . . because I want them to figure it out for themselves." An Italian manager would be more likely to say "If I don't provide my people with the answers they need, how can they move ahead?"
Intrigued by these results, Professor Laurent puzzled over the historic factors that might have pushed these various European cultures to have such different identities when it comes to the role of the boss. Here are three clues you might recall from your high school history classes.
The first clue is one I recall from my tenth-grade teacher, Mr. Duncan, who told our class about how the Roman Empire swept across Southern Europe. He recounted in hushed tones how the Romans built hierarchical social and political structures and heavily centralized systems for managing their vast empire. The boundaries between the different classes were strict and legally enforced. Members of different classes even dressed differently. Only the emperor was allowed to wear a purple toga, while senators could wear a white toga with a broad purple stripe along the edge, and equestrians, who ranked just below the senators, wore togas with a narrow purple stripe. The class of the person was therefore noticeable at first glimpse.
So a first historical point is that the countries that fell under the influence of the Roman Empire (including Spain, Italy and, to a lesser degree, France) tend to be more hierarchical than the rest of Western Europe. Although your Italian boss is unlikely to wear a purple toga, invisible and subtle remnants of these attitudes still remain today.
The second clue relates to a much later European empire, one that dominated the northern part of the continent to almost as great an extent as the Roman Empire dominated the South. When you think of the Vikings, you may think of hulking muscular men with long walrus mustaches and hats with horns, riding big ships and waging bloody wars. What you may not know is that the Vikings were surprisingly egalitarian. When settling in Iceland, they founded one of the world's early democracies. The entire community was invited to the debating hall to thrash out the hot topics of the day, followed by a vote, with each person's opinion carrying equal weight. Legend has it that, when the Prince of Franks sent an envoy from Southern Europe to negotiate with the Vikings, the puzzled envoy returned confused and disheartened, complaining, "I couldn't figure out who to talk with. They said they were all the chiefs."
The countries most influenced by the Vikings consistently rank as some of the most egalitarian and consensus-oriented cultures in the world today. So it is no surprise that, even today, when you walk into a meeting room in Copenhagen or Stockholm, it is often impossible to spot the boss.
Our third historical clue relates to the distance between the people and God in particular religions. Countries with Protestant cultures tend to fall further to the egalitarian side of the scale than those with a more Catholic tradition. One interpretation of this pattern is that the Protestant Reformation largely removed the traditional hierarchy from the church. In many strains of Protestantism, the individual speaks directly to God instead of speaking to God through the priest, the bishop, and pope. Thus, it's natural that societies in which Protestant religions predominate tend to be more egalitarian than those dominated by Catholicism.
Of course, all three of these historical observations are dramatic oversimplifications, as each country has a rich and complex history that helps shape its leadership beliefs. But even in this day of text messaging and video calls, where cross-cultural interactions are commonplace, events that took place thousands of years ago continue to influence the cultures in which individuals are raised and formed-and these historical forces help to explain why European countries appear in such widely different locations on the Leading scale.
This excerpt was posted with permission from "The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business" (2014) from PublicAffairs.
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